Inside the UK’s Medicine Cabinets

Inside the UK’s Medicine Cabinets

A header image introducing the article.


Keeping a well-stocked medicine cabinet is a great way to be prepared for common health problems or those illnesses that take you by surprise.


The NHS recommends keeping a stock of a wide range of different products such as painkillers, antihistamines, indigestion tablets and sunscreen, but this can also be dependent on each household and their medical history.


Prescription medication can also sit in medicine cabinets for months or even years after they are prescribed, and with online pharmacies offering easier ways to get prescriptions to you it is imperative that we know to check use-by dates and dispose of unused medication correctly.


We asked the UK public all about how they stock their medicine cabinets.


Interestingly, when asked if people regularly stock their medicine cabinets, people with short term illnesses are most likely to (55.4%) closely followed by people with long term illnesses (44%), however only just over a third of people (36%) with no medical condition agreed.


Keeping a medicine cabinet fully stocked can be a challenge with knowing what products you may need, which products you only need once and never again, and the use by dates on all those products.


Interestingly, only 40% of people throw away unused medication in the bin, but are they disposing of it correctly?


Find out below how the UK is dealing with unused medication and how best to keep a well-stocked medicine cabinet ready for any emergency.


How are we stocking our medicine cabinets?


Over 40% of people told us they regularly restock their medicine cabinets, but we wanted to go a step further and find out which products they like to have in stock.


25-34-year-olds are the age group that is most likely to regularly restock their medicine cabinets, followed by 35-44-year-olds, with 55+ being the age group that is least likely to stock up their medicine cabinets.


Are the younger generations more concerned about their health and being prepared for the unknown?


Unsurprisingly, paracetamol and ibuprofen came in the top two spots. Over half of people surveyed stock paracetamol in their medicine cabinet and over a third stock the anti-inflammatory ibuprofen.


It is safe to say that if a cold or flu arrives at night and surprises us, a lot of us would actually be very prepared with items such as cold & flu tablets, cough medicine, vapour rub (Vicks) and throat lozenges appearing in our top fifteen products.


This is a great way of being prepared for the colder winter months where cold and flu are rife and something that could benefit a lot of people as 70% of respondents told us that they only buy medicine when they need it.


An infographic showing the most commonly stocked medicines.


The last items left on the shelf


While 62% of people check the use-by dates before taking medicines, more than a third of people (36%) have actually taken out of date medicine.


Expired medications can be less effective or even dangerous due to changes in chemical composition or decreases in strength.


Nearly half of the people we asked (47%) clean out their medicine cabinet regularly, but there are always those sticky half-used bottles left at the back of the cupboard for a long time, sometimes years, when you needed it for an illness that you haven’t had since.


We wanted to find out what was lurking in the back of people’s medicine cabinets.


Interestingly, products that seem to be left that didn’t appear in our top fifteen are much more specific such as bite cream, inhalers and Immodium, all of which are for a specific purpose and could potentially be a one time purchase.


Vapour rub (Vicks), cough medicine, cold and flu tablets and throat lozenges all appeared in the top fifteen products but have also all been ranked in the top fifteen for being left, showing that the need to pre-stock medicine cabinets can sometimes result in leftover products and wastage.


An infographic showing the oldest medicines in people's cabinets.

Medicine cabinet secrets


While most of the people we asked regularly stock their medicine cabinet to ensure they have the right products they might need, there were a lot of people that find the medicines they need through more unconventional methods.


Nearly a third (29%) of the people we surveyed admitted to taking medicines that were not prescribed for them, nearly half of those (42%) were millennials and over a third (33%) were male.


Fascinatingly, the industry sector that seems to be the least cautious with medication is HR, followed by Architecture, Engineering & Building and then Healthcare coming in at third.


Are healthcare professionals more likely to heed their own advice as they have a plethora of knowledge and expertise and are aware of the effects of different medications?


While there is certainly a generational difference in keeping medicine cabinets stocked between the Millennials and the Silent Generation, there is also a clear difference of opinion around sharing medication with friends.


Gen Z is most likely to borrow medication from friends (45%) if they don’t have it in their cupboard while the Silent Generation is the least likely at only 11%.


A graphic showing the amount of medicine shared between friends and family.


Wasted prescriptions


From September 2020-August 2021 there were 1,112,384,981 prescription items prescribed in England.


The results from our survey showed that up to 40% of people admitted to throwing away unused prescription medication.


Based on these results and an estimated 4 in 10 people throwing away unused prescription medication, wastage has the potential to be anywhere up to 444,953,992 prescription items.


It is important to note that medication may be considered unused when no longer needed, the treatment course has ended or there have been changes to the diagnosis.


With 40% of people admitting to throwing away unused prescription medication, there appears to be a disconnect with communicating the correct course of action to take when disposing of prescription medication.


You can take old medications back to your pharmacy for them to dispose of or use Chemist4U’s customer services team, and the best course of action is learning how to correctly dispose of old medications.


As so many prescriptions are thrown away every year, it is no surprise that only 56% of people are aware of the cost of unused medication to the NHS.


Unused prescription medicines cost the NHS £300 million every year which could pay for more community nurses and more drug treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s.



A graphic showing the figures for prescription medication wastage.

A graphic showing the figures for prescription medication wastage.



The research was conducted by Censuswide with 2,000 general consumers (nat rep) aged 18+ between 03.11.21 to 05.11.21. Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles. Wasted prescription estimations were calculated from survey responses and total prescriptions figures from NHS England Prescriptions Data from September 2020-August 2021.

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James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 08 December 2021
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